Espionage in Kautilya’s Arthashastra: A case study of 1971 India-Pakistan War and Intelligence

 By Shahnawaz Mughal

Arthashastra written by Kautilya is a treatise on statecraft written in 4 BC. Kautilya was an advisor to King Chandragupta Maurya and helped him establish the Mauryan Empire. In his monumental work, Kautilya has written about the governance of the state, revenue collection, internal security, external security, foreign policy, and war. Apart from these Kautilya wrote extensively on Covert operations and defined it as the most important element for a state. In his words “A single assassin can achieve, with weapons, fire or poison, more than a fully mobilized army”. He assigned great value to espionage activities to maintain internal as well as external security. This article is an attempt to draw analogies between Intelligence operations as mentioned in Arthashastra with the Indian Intelligence operations in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

In the words of B Raman, one of India’s first external Intelligence agents, the role of R&AW was five-fold:

  1. Provide Intelligence to the policymakers and the armed forces.
  2. Train the Bengali freedom fighters in clandestine training camps.
  3. Network with Bengali public servants from East Pakistan posted in West Pakistan and Pakistan diplomatic missions abroad and persuade them to co-operate with the freedom fighters and to help in the freedom struggle by providing intelligence.
  4. To mount a special operation in the CHT against the sanctuaries and training camps of the Naga and Mizo hostiles.
  5. To organize psychological warfare (PSYWAR) campaign against the Pakistani rulers by disseminating reports about the massacres of the Bengalis in East Pakistan and the Exodus of refugees.

A comparison between R&AW’s strategy and Arthashastra would reflect that Kautilya’s principles were employed by R&AW, knowingly or unknowingly.

The first task of R&AW was to provide intelligence to the policymakers and armed forces. The primary work of any intelligence agency is to gather intelligence through its different sources. R&AW did this by collecting the data in East and West Pakistan, analyzing and verifying it before sending it to the final consumer. The reports sent by R&AW to the policymakers greatly helped in assessing the situation and planning advance strategy. Kautilya’s spies also did the same work of gathering and sending intelligence to the King. Below are the excerpts from Arthashastra which directly point towards it:

Spies shall find out {and report} the rumors circulating among the people.

The second task was to Train the Bengali Freedom Fighters in Clandestine training camps.  They were trained covertly by Intelligence agencies and prepared to fight against the Pakistani forces. These trained freedom fighters formed what was known as Mukti Bahini. These consisted of mainly soldiers from East Bengal Regiment, Police, Paramilitary and volunteers. These people were angry with the Pakistani rulers and had been deprived of their rights. Kautilya has advised approaching the angry who has been denied of his rights, or to someone whom a promised reward has not been given, clearly in this case EP was not given what it rightly deserved.

Just as a maddened elephant ridden by a drunk tramples underfoot whatever comes in its way, so does [your] king, blind due to ignorance of Shastras, has started destroying the city and the country people. Show your anger [by joining our king].

The third task was to network with the East Bengali officials working in West Pakistan and other foreign missions and persuade them to cooperate. The support of high ranking EP officials was important for the success of the mission. These people could provide sensitive data right from the policymaking circles which otherwise would have been difficult. S N Prasad writes in The India-Pakistan War of 1971: A History that the Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan in Calcutta, M Hossain Ali and his staff were the first to declare their allegiance which was followed by two Bengali diplomats of Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, KM Shahabuddin, and Amjadul Haque. This was followed by Bengali diplomats working in other Pakistani missions abroad. By December 1971, about 126 Bengali officials in Pak missions abroad, including Ambassadors posted in Iraq, Philippines, and Argentina had declared their allegiance to Bangladesh. Kautilya has mentioned subversion as a tool in Espionage operations. He was a crafty statesman and he knew that winning over the enemy’s high officials would tremendously boost the chances of success in a campaign.

In the enemy’s country, those who are easily subverted shall be won over by conciliation and gifts. Those who are not easily subverted shall be tackled by sowing dissension, use of force or by pointing out to them the defects of their king.

The fourth task mentioned by Raman advocated the use of force in insurgency-hit areas in Nagaland and Mizoram was executed by covert action units called the Special Frontier Force (SFF). These forces numbering to 3000 were deployed in the areas adjacent to the Chittagong Hill Tracts where they destroyed the insurgency infrastructure of the Mizos and later were ordered to begin raids across the border. In ‘Intelligence Services: Analysis, Organisation and Function’ Bhasyham Kasturi writes that SFF was able to block a potential escape route for Pakistani forces into Burma and also pinned down members of Pakistan’s 97 Independent Brigade and 2 Commando Battalion in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An observation of these SFF Operations clearly shows that the plan was to hit in those areas where the Pakistani Forces least expected them, i.e. in the rear. Kautilya’s strategy always had some reserved forces which would hit the enemy in the rear to gain profits in the front.

The enemy’s army may be attacked in the rear [with a part of the forces] and when it is staggering or has turned its back, attacked with the best of the forces.

If a frontal attack is unfavorable, the attack shall be from the rear and vice versa.

The final task was to organize psychological warfare against Pakistan. The PSYWAR Division made sure that the brutalities committed by the Pakistani forces and the resulting exodus of refugees into India were under an international spotlight. It disseminated reports against West Pakistan on the violation of Human Rights of people of East Pakistan. Western journalists were given access in the refugee camps to visit and see for themselves the condition in the camps of which West Pakistan was responsible. They were also supplied with photos and newsreels of the camps which in turn denied any support to Pakistan from the western press. Another trick in PSYWAR was setting up a black radio station by the name ‘Swadheen Bangla Betaar Kendra’. This radio station started broadcasting using a transmitter placed on a boat in Hoogly River. The Pakistani radio direction finders had a false impression that the ‘Swadheen Bangla Betaar Kendra’ was operating from within East Pakistan as the boat changed its position regularly by going up and down the river. This radio broadcasted news about the brutalities of Pakistani forces on people of East Pakistan and also motivated them to fight against the injustice by playing motivational songs and satirical programs. Kamal Lohani who was the head of the news at the radio station said that “It was like psychological warfare that was used in the communication medium.”

Kautilya believed in PSYWAR to be used in a campaign and propaganda as a tool to advance it. Here are the excerpts from Arthashastra which point towards the use of PSYWAR as a means to win in a campaign.

Soothsayers, readers of omens, astrologers, reciters of Puranas, intuitionists, and clandestine agents, those who helped the king perform the tricks and those who had witnessed them shall advertise them inside his territory. In the enemy’s territory, they shall advertise, in particular.


The 1971 India-Pakistan War started due to conflict between EP and WP. India became a party to it due to the security concerns raised after the heavy influx of refugees. The result was India claiming victory and EP becoming a sovereign state i.e. Bangladesh. The Intelligence inputs provided were important for the Armed Forces in planning strategies. In the present context, the Inter agency coordination between different intelligence gathering agencies has to be improve. Had the information been correctly verified, the attack could possibly have been averted. Kautilya’s espionage structure did not rely on a single source of intelligence and the information provided by the agent was verified thrice to avoid any inaccuracy. Thus it is important for intelligence agencies to have a better inter agency coordination.